Snakes, like most people, know Baja is a great place to be and they certainly have no reason to leave. With these serpents still roaming the land, they are bound to cross paths with us at certain times. Luckily in most cases, an actual snake bite almost never results in serious harm or death. In fact, in the United States over 45,000 people are bit each year. Only 8,000 of those bites are poisonous and only 9 to 15 of those cause death. Despite the low chance of ever being bit or dying from a bite, the thought does strike fear in the hearts of even the toughest traveler or Baja resident. It is lucky for us humans that the old adage—they are more afraid us than we are of them—proves to be true.
However, even with several facts dispelling fears about being bit by a snake in Baja, there is still the chance. Therefore, it is important to be aware of what snakes are in the area and how to stay away from them.
Rattlesnakes are known to be across the peninsula. They are distinctive because of their built-in warning system—the rattle. This hard noisy formation on the end of their bodies is meant to warn you enough in advance so you have plenty opportunity to stay away. The Baja California rattlesnake can grow to 30–31 inches long and traditionally has brown coloring with black markings. They can also be grayish brown and have a cream color on their underbelly. They usually hide in rock piles, brush or trash heaps. They enjoy eating rodents and lizards. While they are venomous, they do have the ability to regulate the amount of venom released when they strike. The amount they release depends on whether they are striking for defense or hunting.
The king snake is a colorful snake found in Baja. It has red, black, and white cross bands like a coral snake does. They can reach a length of 48 inches and typically like to stay in the woods, under logs and bark. They are also excellent climbers. They eat lizards, snakes, birds, bird eggs and even small mammals.
The shovel-nosed snake has a distinctive look. It has a flattened snout, hence the name shovel-nosed. It can be whitish or yellow in color with cross bands that are dark brown or black. The cross bands may also be reddish orange. They are a bit smaller, only growing to about 15 inches. They have smooth scales and can strike repeatedly. Luckily, their venom is not very dangerous. They live in the dunes and stick to either sand or rocky hillsides. They eat insects and scorpions.
There are many common sense ways to avoid being bitten by any of these snakes and the many other snake species that live in Baja. Use caution anytime you are reaching into an area where snakes may be, especially while hiking or climbing. It is best to probe areas with a stick before sticking your hand into or under logs or rock ledges. Wearing sturdy or leather shoes will help protect you when you are out in the wild. Ranchers even wear thick leather leggings when they are working where snakes are plentiful. Pay attention to your surroundings. Rattlesnakes warn you enough so you can slowly back away from them. Keep in mind they can strike up to three-quarters of their body length.
If you are unfortunate enough to get bit, do not panic. Staying physically and mentally calm will keep the cardiovascular system from speeding up. Try to remember distinctive markings or be able to identify the type of snake. Look at the bite mark to help determine if it may be venomous or not. If it is non-poisonous, there will be no fang punctures, only small shallow marks. If it is a venomous bite, you may see one or two large punctures with smaller teeth marks also. Let the bite bleed out for 20 to 30 seconds before covering. Wash with betadine or soap and water when you can. Apply pressure and keep the bite close to heart level. You want to apply adequate pressure but do not cut off blood supply to the area either.
Do not cut open the area around the bite, as this has been shown to damage surrounding tissue making the bite worse. Do not suck out the venom either. This is no longer seen as helpful. Remove any items that may constrict the body when inevitable swelling occurs, such as rings, bracelets and shoes. Do not use ice packs on the bite. Calmly seek medical attention as soon as possible in order to receive potentially life-saving antivenin treatments.
The best way to avoid ever being in a situation where you are in need of treatment is to respect and be aware of your surroundings in the natural world. If you are careful to not disturb or get too close to a snake, it too will avoid you at all cost.
The Southern Pacific rattlesnake is found coastally in Southern California and Baja, but reaches inland into the desert in certain areas. Males, as with most snakes, have longer tails than females. Southern Pacifics have been know to aggressively defend themselves but, as with most snakes, will choose to flee if they have a route of escape. Color variations occur. This snake can cause great tissue damage. They can live several decades. Length: 16 to 64 inches long. Photo courtesy of Martin Feldner
Originally published June 2010.